Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Rational response to mass killers

The initial response to the shooting of school children at Sandy Hook was a call to renew the Clinton-era assault-weapon ban. While the army has assault rifles, there is no real definition for an assault weapon. The 1990s law tried to define them by listing military features that were easily removed. Does anyone seriously believe that a gun capable of accepting a bayonet is more dangerous than a nearly identical one that does not accept a bayonet?

There is also a great deal of confusion about the term "semi-automatic". A fully automatic weapon continues to fire as long as the trigger is depressed. A machine gun is an automatic weapon. These are tightly controlled and have not been used in any mass shootings.

A semi-automatic weapon fires one shot each time the trigger is pulled. Some people would classify a revolver as being semi-automatic. The next step down from semi-automatic is one that requires an extra step to chamber the next round. This might be a bolt-action, a lever action, or a pump.

The biggest disconnect is that idea that disturbed people will be unable to injure anyone if certain guns are outlawed. The Columbine killers show how misguided that reasoning is. They considered flying an airplane into a building or crashing a car into a school bus and instead came up with a truly diabolical plan. They constructed two bombs around propane tanks and hid them in the school. Their intention was to kill upwards of a thousand people with the bombs then use guns and pipe bombs to kill the survivors. As a final touch, they rigged gasoline bombs in their cars to explode an hour later in the hope of killing police officers on the scene.

Fortunately, none of their bombs went off. When their plans failed, they began shooting people and attempted to detonate one of their propane bombs manually. After that failed, they shot each other.

And all of this happened during the assault weapons ban.

The Attorney General's recommendations say nothing about guns. Instead they talk about identification of disturbed individuals.

This is something that has been lost in the current reaction. The initial reaction to Sandy Hook is that it was caused by guns and that we have to do something about gun control. There is no recognition that tens of millions of peaceful people own guns or that mass shootings are not the work of ordinary people. Neither is there any recognition that guns will continue to be available no matter what laws are passed. Anyone who doubts that should should look at Mexico which officially has tight gun control or even cities such as Washington DC where guns are effectively outlawed.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Gun Hysteria

Something bad happened and guns were involved! We have to prevent this from ever happening again! We must pass gun legislation while people are still outraged!

Why the urgency? Because few of the measures being proposed in the wake of the Newtown shootings would have made a difference. A few of the suggestions include:

Renewing the ban on assault guns.
While the military has assault rifles, there is no such thing as an assault gun. Attempts to create a definition simply ended up with manufacturers making small changes and continuing to sell essentially the same gun. The rifle used at the Newtown shootings did not count as an assault weapon under the Clinton-era legislation.

In general, the assault weapons ban was a total failure. Gun deaths were declining before the ban and continued to decline during and after the ban. If you look at a chart of gun deaths you cannot tell when the ban was in effect.

Closing the Gun Show Loophole
This "loophole" is the ability for one private citizen to sell a gun to another private citizen. While it happens at gun shows, it happens other times also. "Closing the loophole" means that the federal government would be involved anytime a gun changed hands.

Remember that the shooter used his mother's guns and that she bought them through licensed gun dealers.

Outlawing large-capacity clips
This might make a difference. It would require a shooter to carry more clips and change more often. That might give potential victims more time to run. But, the Clinton-era ban was only on new clips. Before the law went into effect, production ramped up on clips so that high-capacity clips were available during the entire period of the ban.

Part of the rush to pass new legislation is that they want it passed before people have time to wonder if the new laws would make any difference. They also in a hurry to get legislation passed before people can put the shooting in perspective. Yes, shooting young children is horrible but only a very tiny percentage of gun owners go on a rampage. On average, around 87 people are killed by cars each day but there is no sense of urgency since the deaths are scattered.

By endorsing a list of ineffective measures, the anti-gun people are proving that this is not about a specific incident, it is about advancing an ideological agenda. They are using a tragedy to shout down the opposition. They did the same thing after the Giffords shooting when they insisted that a man with psychological must have been taking coded orders from Sarah Palin.

Gun rights advocates long suspected that Obama had been silent on gun control so that he would be reelected. There is a good chance that he would not have been reelected if he had supported this legislation prior to the election. While it is possible that a tragic event caused him to reevaluate his priorities, it is also possible that the tragedy simply allowed him to advance policies that he was planning on pushing during his second term, anyway.

It should also be noted that Obama is trying to exploit the tragedy in the Fiscal Cliff negotiations. That makes everything he does suspect.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Gun Craziness and Sandy Hook

There has been a wave of craziness in the wake of the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook. Both sides have said some stupid things.

To start with, we cannot get rid of guns. That horse has left the barn. There are more guns than people now. Any attempt to confiscate all of them would require a level of house to house search that would shock the 18th century British. It would also be ineffective. If I know that they are going to search my house for guns, I will hide them elsewhere until later.

Nancy Pelosi has promised to introduce new measures that would put restrictions on new gun purchases. This is political opportunism that would not have stopped the shootings. In general, gun opponents see an opening for new gun legislation that is unrelated to the shootings. The big giveaway here is that this would only affect new sales. This is fueled by the natural urge that politicians have to be seen doing something, even if it is symbolic.

The other side has made an issue about the gun free zones. Of course, declaring the school a weapons free zone did not stop the shooting. It was never intended to. The weapons free zones were created in the 1990s after a number of students were caught with guns. They inevitably said that they carried the gun for self-protection. Teenagers should not be carrying guns around with intent to use. They do not have the judgement. This is even more true of the elementary school where the shootings took place.

Finally, guns are only the means. Getting rid of guns would not stop someone dedicated to destruction. The worst school killing in history took place in 1927 when the school board treasurer in Bath, Michigan packed a school full of explosives and blew it up. Just today a car bomb killed 17 in Pakistan. The Columbine killers planned to explode a propane tank, potentially killing over 1,000 and only started shooting people when their bomb failed. Taking guns away will not stop murderous intent.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Unions and the Right to Work

Al Sharpton wrote a column about Michigan's new Right to Work law that refers to it in terms of civil rights. This has been a typical reaction from the left. The law does nothing to stop unions from organizing or negotiating. The only thing it does is stop forcing people to join unions if they don't want to. Think about that - the left is treating the freedom to decline membership as a civil rights issue. This should be no surprise since Obamacare fines people for not carrying insurance but it still turns the idea of civil rights on its head.

Modern unions are a relic of earlier days. Their heyday was a century ago when workers rights actually were being abused. They work best in an industrial setting where jobs are narrowly defined and workers are interchangeable. The work poorly in an office setting where everyone does something different and creativity is required. To hear their supporters, they are the only thing that stands between the American worker and the near-slave conditions of 19th century factory jobs.

Their self-image is all wrong. Laws have been made to protect us from the abuses of earlier times. A tight job market does far more to raise individual's pay than a union. In fact, the union insistence on seniority limits competition because it discourages employees from taking other jobs.

The vast majority of Americans manage to exist without being in a union and don't feel the need to organize.

At the same time, unions have become fat and corrupt. They amass huge warchests which they use to get sympathetic legislators elected. This is why Republicans have waged war on them for the last few years - because union money is almost always on the wrong side of union-sponsored ads. Unions have no use for limited-government because that means limiting union jobs. So they are for an ever-expanding government and don't care about the cost.

Right to Work legislation does not stop unions from organizing but it does cut their warchest to just what their members pay. They can no longer take dues from non-members. This will cut their lobbying power which has always been disproportionate to their membership. No civil rights are involved, just a source of money for the Democrats drying up.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Switch Places?

When asked about his portrayal of the Democrats in the movie Lincoln, Director Spielberg said "you have to understand that the Democrats and Republicans have switched places since then." There are a lot of ways that this can be taken. Some of them are true and some are insulting.

In the movie, as in history, the Republicans were easily convinced to support the 13th Amendment which outlawed slavery. The Democrats were solidly against it so Lincoln and his operatives had to pick up votes one by one.

The most insulting implication is that the Democrats were on the wrong side of an important issue in the 1860s but that the Republicans are the ones on the wrong side now. You could refine that to refer just to civil rights. A reasoned argument can be made that the Republicans' position of equality before the law is morally valid and that the Democrats' position of racial preferences is divisive and harmful to the people it is trying to protect. Regardless, it gives Democrats a chance to feel smug to think that they are morally superior.

There are some ways that the two parties actually have traded positions. During the 19th century, Democrats believed in states rights taking precedence over federal law. This allowed slave states to exist. Lincoln changed that, giving the federal government primacy. He changed us from "These United States" to "The United States". Later presidents used this to expand and consolidate federal power. Since Reagan's alliance with the Libertarians, Republicans have felt that the federal government has expanded too far and are in favor of returning some powers back to the states. One reason for this is that federal one-size-fits-all programs are often a poor fit for most of the country.

There are other issues that the two parties continue their 19th century support for. The Democrats have always been the part of the poor and supported measures such as protective tariffs and market restraints. The Republicans have been in favor of open markets and free trade going back to their roots as the Whigs (the Republicans were formed from members of the defunct Whigs and abolitionists). This has continued to today with President Obama running a campaign on class warfare.

In all, it is a mixed bag. The parties have switched positions on some issues and are consistent on others. On the definings issues of the parties, they are really about the same. The Democrats are still about intervening to help specific constituents and the Republicans are in favor of free markets.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Hollywood Communists

The standard line for years has been that there was nothing to the Hollywood Communist Party. Portrayals like The Majestic and The Front imply that many people implicated were not even really communists. They just joined to impress a girlfriend. Recently Sean Penn complained about his father's treatment during the period.

While it is true that this organization was ultimately infective, it is also true that they really were hard-core communists who were plotting to overthrow the US government.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a period when the Soviet archives were publicly available. Several historians traveled to Russia and went through them.

There were actually three different communist parties at the time. The communist party of California and of Los Angeles were harmless and open to anyone who wanted to join.

The Communist Party of Hollywood was a different animal. They literally took their marching orders from Moscow. You did not join to impress a girl. There was a screening process set up to weed out all but the truly committed and the final decision on who was admitted came from Moscow.

Once you were in, you surrendered much of your personal freedom to the party and to Moscow. You could only marry a fellow communist. Similarly, if you had an analyst or psychiatrist, he had to be approved in case you gave away any secrets.

It is tempting to give this group a pass. After all, their side lost so they did not cause any real harm. But it is important to put it in perspective. During the 1950s, communism was advancing. During the 1950s and 1960s communism took over a good bit of the world. India and Egypt were both socialist. Revolutions were taking place all over Africa and South America. Half of Europe was occupied by Soviet troops. There was genuine cause for alarm.

To give a modern parallel, they were similar to the modern groups that plot to commit acts of terrorism in the US. They were not nice people and they were not innocent.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

The Objection to Rice

I have seen several possible reasons advanced for the objections to Susan Rice becoming Secretary of State. There have been accusations that people object to her race or gender. I think it is far more simple than that.

Five days after the attack that killed the Libyan ambassador, she went on a series of talk shows and told a bald face lie - that the attack grew out of a protest over a YouTube video and had nothing to do with terrorists.

I am sure that there is a lingering suspicion that Obama would have lost the election if the electorate knew that al Qaeda, an organization that President Obama claimed was no longer a threat, had mounted an attack that killed an ambassador. Rice gave political cover for her boss during a tight election and the Republicans can't forgive her for it.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Filibuster "Reform"

The Democrat-controlled Senate is planning on changing the rules for a filibuster. The White House has given its support.

For the past four years (minus a few months when the Democrats controlled 60 seats), the Republicans have used the filibuster and the threat of a filibuster to block legislation they strongly disapprove of. Since it takes nearly all of the Republicans, united, to wage a filibuster, this says a lot about the strength of their convictions.

The Democrats and the White House hate this. They feel that a simple majority should be all they need to pass their agenda and that the Republicans are abusing the filibuster.

The Republicans counter that Majority-leader Reid has abused his authority by refusing to allow Republicans to make a single amendment to important legislation.

Regardless, the Democrats will regret it if they change the rules. One of the iron laws of American politics is that no party can keep control forever. The way that the Democrats treat the Republicans today sets the tone for how they will be treated when the Republicans are in the majority. This could happen in 2014 when memories of the rule change will still be fresh.

There is a very good chance that the Republicans will take the Senate in 2014. Typically the party in the White House loses seats in this off-year election. There are two reasons for this, both relating to the President. This class of Senators was elected along with Obama in 2008. They will not have the benefit of Obama's coat-tails in this election. Further, by a President's 6th year, people are getting tired of him which helps the opposition. Reagan and Bush (43) both lost the Senate in their 6th year and the Republicans solidified their gains in Clinton's 6th year. All three presidents saw a drop-off in their popularity after their reelection.

Considering this, the Democrats should be leaning over backwards to be nice to the Republicans in the hope that they will reciprocate.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Cyber Monday

The term Cyber Monday is fairly recent. is reputed to have created it in 2004. The idea was that people would be going back to work after Thanksgiving and using their employer's fast internet connection to do their Christmas shopping instead of doing it at home through a slow dial-up line.

The whole idea is pretty out of date. Who uses dial-up anymore? Most people have cable or DSL. Heck, my cell phone has 4G which is fast enough for streaming video and I can use it for an Internet connection if I really need to.

By now the thing has taken on a life of its own with Cyber Monday specials but it's all pretty silly. Christmas is still a month away (ok, 29 days) and nearly everyplace promises delivery in less than a week.

So, don't feel that you have to buy something today just because it is Cyber Monday.

Anyone Remember "Jesusland"?

A polarizing president wins reelection in a close competition. The other side starts talking about succeeding. 2012? Yes, but it also happened in 2004. Many Democrats talked about having the blue states succeed from the union and join Canada. The result would be the United States of Canada and Jesusland.

So, given that, why are so many on the left even reacting to talk of secession?

Friday, November 23, 2012

Obamacare and Unintended Consequences

One of the strongest Libertarian arguments against tight government controls is the law of unintended consequences. This says that things will never work out exactly as anticipated and the more complex the legislation the more unintended consequences it will spawn. Obamacare is complex and far-reaching so the unintended effects will be immense.

One of the first effects it is having is on part-time workers. One of the goals of Obamacare is to see that more people are covered by insurance. Currently, most part-time workers are not covered with part-time being defined as people working no more than 35 hours per week. When they were writing the legislation, some genius figured that if they lowered the limit on part-time hours then more people would be covered.

Keep in mind that it costs a lot more to hire a full-time employee than a part-time one. Places like restaurants and fast-food depend heavily on part-time employees. But now the definition of part-time employee is changing. Obamacare defines it as no more than 30 hours per week.

The employers have two options. One is to provide medical coverage for people. That is the intended consequence but those costs will be passed along to consumers. That will cost sales.

The other option is to cut part-time workers back to 30 hours and hire more workers. That complicates things for the employer but not as much as providing insurance would. But, it has a devastating effect on employees. They lose 1/7 of their income and now they are required by federal law to provide their own insurance.

Even colleges are cutting the hours on part-time teachers in order to cut costs.

So a change that was meant to increase coverage will instead cut people's hours.

Unintended consequences.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Benghazi Questions

More than two months after the event there are three unanswered questions about what happened.

  1. Why were the consulate and the ambassador so lightly guarded on that particular date? September 11 is an important symbolic date and the first anniversary of 9/11 since bin Laden was killed. Despite this, orders seems to ave gone out telling the various embassies to treat this date as business as usual.
  2. Why was the response to slow? The battle went on for four hours but it took 19 hours for relief to arrive.
  3. Why did the administration keep talking about a video? Yes, the President used the term "terror" in his Rose Garden speech in a general way. By the weekend the administration was insisting that the event was a protest that got out of hand. The CIA knew that it was a terrorist attack by the next day. Even if they did not want to specifically name al Qaeda, the talking points released made it clear that this was not a demonstration about a video.

The middle question implies incompetence and someone's head should roll. The other two questions imply politics. Remember Joe Biden's quote about why Obama should be reelected, "Bin Laden is dead and GM is alive." The GM part figured in many campaign commercials but the bin Laden part was also important. At various points the Obama campaign insisted that it was a "gutsy call" that Romney would not have made. Biden quoted Romney as saying that he did not see bin Laden's death as that important.

The implication was that the war on terror was won when we killed bin Laden. Romney's actual statement had been that he considered disrupting the organization more important than killing the top man.

The attack at Benghazi proved Romney's point. The organization is still capable of killing Americans. The Obama campaign needed to downplay that message and play up the idea that the war of terror had ended.

It is possible that the administration ordered the embassies to stand down from alert in order for political purposes - that they wanted to push the idea that we don't have to worry about terrorists any longer. If that is what happened then it backfired horribly. Even the protests that actually were inspired by the video were carefully managed to occur on and right after 9/11.

If that is true then Obama needed to keep things quiet until after the election. The idea that a president would leave state department personnel vulnerable for political purposes is enough to cost a president his reelection. Even if that was not true, the events that actually happened threatened to change the message from "Bin Laden is dead and GM is alive" to "Bin Laden is dead but al Qaeda is alive".

That is why these questions are important. We need to know if our government is playing politics with lives and lying to cover it up.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Hostess and the Unions

Hostess, maker of Twinklies and Wonder Bread, went out of business last week after union members refused to come back to work from a strike. This has lead to a national polarization. On one hand the ACL-CIO put out this statement:

What's happening with Hostess Brands is a microcosm of what's wrong with America, as Bain-style Wall Street vultures make themselves rich by making America poor. Crony capitalism and consistently poor management drove Hostess into the ground, but its workers are paying the price. These workers, who consistently make great products Americans love and have offered multiple concessions, want their company to succeed. They have bravely taken a stand against the corporate race-to-the-bottom. And now they and their communities are suffering the tragedy of a needless layoff. This is wrong. It has to stop. It's wrecking America.

Some information has been circulating that supports the union position and blames everything on incompetent management. This is incomplete.

Hostess has been in decline for a decade or more. Sales have been declining as the nation becomes more interested in a healthy diet. Their signature product, the Twinkie, is the poster child for junk food.

At the same time that their sales have gone down, their expenses have gone up. Hostess uses sugar instead of corn syrup and the price of sugar is kept artificially high bu government policy (at the same time, corn syrup is federally subsidized which is why so many food makers have switched). Prior to going out of business, Hostess had filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy twice.

Facing declining sales and rising costs, the only way that Hostess could stay in business was to cut expenses. Personnel is usually one of the highest costs in running a business so they asked the bankruptcy courts to approve a cut in pay. This was granted which lead to the strike.

I have seen short lists of issues circulating Facebook. They point out the multiple reorganizations and raises in management pay. All of these points are irrelevant. Hostess could not stay in business if its plants were closed due to a strike nor could it stay in business for very long if it didn't get wage concessions.

Two unions were involved. One, the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM) is affiliated with the AFL-CIO. The other union is the Teamsters Union. The Teamsters met with the Hostess management and agreed that wage cuts were the only way to stay in business. The BCTGM told its members that there were better options but did not specify any.

Obviously the management was not bluffing and the Teamsters blames the BCTGM for the loss of 18,500 jobs.

I don't know if they still teach about Pyrrhic Victories in school but this seems like a classic example. In Classical times, King Pyrrhus won two battles against invading Romans but he lost proportionally more of his army than the Romans did leaving Pyrrhus in a weaker position after his victories.

The AFL-CIO is celebrating this because it sends a message to management that worker concessions are off the table. They would prefer to see a plant closed than see its workers paid less.

It is certainly possible that Hostess was not a viable company in the long-term. Two reorganizations in less than a decade indicates that their problems went deeper than poor management. It is also possible that the BCTGM's claim is true that Hostess was planning on selling its parts. In that case, lower production costs would make it more likely that the plants would stay open under new owners. Regardless, the plants are closed now and the workers are unemployed.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Over the Cliff

The "Fiscal Cliff" is approaching. President Obama has made it clear that he will not accept a deal that does not raise the marginal rate on the highest earners. The Republicans have similarly made it clear that they are willing to eliminate tax adjustments and loopholes so that revenue is higher but they will not accept higher rates and actually would prefer the rates flattened.

Prior to the election I characterized it as a choice between competence and ideology. That is how this fight is breaking down. There is evidence to indicate that the Republican proposal would help the economy and the President's would hurt it. That does not matter to the President. He is fixated on having the rich pay a nominally higher percentage, even if they would pay as much or more under the Republican proposal.

The worst thing is that there are people on both sides rooting for the government to fall over the Fiscal Cliff.

The Fiscal Cliff was created a year and a half ago as part of the debt limit negotiations. Rather than continue to give the President unlimited spending power, the Republicans insisted that an immediate raise in the debt limit must be tied to long-term deficit reductions. With the deadline approaching fast, there was no time to hash out a complicated plan so they promised to do it later and they established the Fiscal Cliff as an incentive to force the issue. The idea is that if no cuts could be decided on then everything would be cut with a disproportionate amount of the cuts coming from defense. This will throw tens of thousands of government workers and contractors out of work. In addition to that, all of the tax cuts will expire. This combination could easily force a new recession.

A few fringe Republicans want to see the cuts go through. They see this as the only way to actually slow government growth.

On the other hand, several senior Democrats see the Fiscal Cliff as a way of gaining political advantage. If it happens they figure that the Republicans will be so desperate that they will accept any deal the Democrats offer. They also see it as a loophole in the Republicans' pledge not to raise taxes. They figure that once the rates rise automatically, the Republicans will only have to vote on reducing taxes for most people instead of raising them on a specific group.

There is a good chance that the Democrats will win this. In the debt negotiations, the last sticking point was when the debt limit would come up again. The President insisted that the debt limit be raised high enough to last past the election and was willing to collapse the  world's economy rather than give on this issue. I expect to see him play the same trump card again and for the Republicans to take the responsible course and give in.

But, there is a second Fiscal Cliff coming up. The debt limit will need to be raised again soon.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


The mem going around the left these days is that the Democrats should have won Congress but didn't because the nasty Republicans cheated by gerrymandering the system. While it may be true that more people voted for Democrats for Congress than voted for Republicans, this does not prove anything. There are some more important factors at work. The most important one is that Democrats tend to live clustered together while Republicans spread out more. This has its own ramifications.

Ohio was the swing state this year. Given how closely balanced the Ohio electorate is you would expect it to have equal numbers of Democrats and republicans but if you look at a map showing concentrations of voters you find that President Obama's support came from a swath across the northern part of the state plus the areas around Columbus and Cincinnati. The rest of the state went for Romney.

If you draw simple Congressional districts then you only end up with three or four Democrats. The only way to get more is to chop up the cities and add them to more rural districts. But the more you do this the stranger the districts look. No matter how you chop it up, it is going to look like gerrymandering to a neutral observer. There is just no way around this.

This also ties into minority rights. Minorities tend to vote Democrat and the thinking for decades has been to create minority districts in order to assure the election of minorities to Congress. Any change to this system would be treated as a threat to minority representation.

Another factor caused by Democrats clustering together is that votes count more in some states than in others. To keep Congress from having over a thousand members, the smaller states get more representatives per citizen than the large states get. Most of the small states vote Republican and the large states vote Democrat.

There are some other factors at play. 30 states have Republican governors. Since you can't gerrymander a state, this implies that Congress should be 60% Republican. The fact that it isn't shows the importance of incumbency and wave elections. Many of those governors were elected in the wave election of 2010. The House of Representatives also changed hands that year. The new districts were drawn after an election where the Republicans won big.

Incumbency should never be ignored as a factor. We had three wave elections where multiple districts changed hands, two in which Democrats made gains and one in which Republicans reversed this trend. And these took place before the most recent redistricting. Part of this is because both parties fight hard for safe districts but part is also because in an ordinary election, people tend to vote for the person already in office. The system is set up to favor the incumbent from either party. While we did have a series of wave elections, this is unusual. The House has only changed hands three times in the last 50 years and two of them were in the last six.

A case can be made for making more districts competitive. Currently the most radical members of Congress, especially from the left, come from safe seats. Having more competitive districts would tend to favor more moderate candidates but the current complaints about gerrymandering have nothing to do with that. They are the coming from people who are offended by the very idea that the election was a status quo election.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Status Quo Election

So what meaning should the Republicans take from last week's election loss? Not much, mainly because nothing really changed.

The elections in 2006-2010 were change elections. The White House, the House of Representatives, and/or the Senate changed parties.

In 2012, nothing changed. The Democrats picked up two seats in the Senate but the balance of power is still about the same.

In a lot of ways, 2012 resembles 2004. In both elections the vote was more a referendum on the incumbent as anything. The party out of power hated the incumbent with a passion and rallied behind a slightly wooden New Englander. They expected to win based and were surprised that the incumbent won by a narrow but solid majority. The results of the election started the incumbent's party talking about holding a permanent majority and the need for the challenger's party to change if it wanted to stay competitive.

There are other parallels. In 2004 we were involved in two wars so the Democrats ran a war veteran on the theory that someone who had been in combat was better qualified to command the troops. During the campaign his strong point, his military service, was discredited.

In 2012 we were stuck in a financial slump so the Republicans ran a businessman on the theory that someone who had guided businesses would be better qualified to run the economy. During the campaign his strong point, his time at Bain, was discredited.

Another similarity, in 2004 and in 2012 the incumbent had the better get-out-the-vote organization.

There are some differences. Romney is much more moderate than Kerry and in 2004 the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress. Bush managed to increase his lead in the popular vote. In 2012 the Democrats do not control the House and Obama's lead was smaller in 2012 than in 2008. Also, the Republicans hold a record number of governorships including several states that Obama carried.

So, what lesson should we learn?

The biggest one is how fast things change. After Katrina and mismanagement in Iraq, the Republicans lost both Houses of Congress followed by the White House. Considering the number of scandals that have come out in the last week, the chaos in Libya and Egypt, and the weakening economy, Obama's popularity may vanish as fast as Bush's did.

There are a couple of things that the Republicans need to do to help their chances. One is to quash the extreme anti-abortion candidates. They pull down the entire party. The other is to come up with a more positive stance on immigration control.

They also need to start calling the Democrats on how far to the left they moved. How can the Democrats claim to be the moderates when they are running on a platform of free birth control? Similarly, the Republicans need to start insisting that the Democrats give a strategy for entitlement reform that goes beyond kicking the can down the road.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Timing is Everything

If the financial crash had happened six months later, Obama would have gotten more of the blame. Instead he was able to blame Bush.

If Hurricane Sandy had hit a week later then Obama's approval ratings would probably still have been below 50% on election day.

Who knows what would have happened if the head of the CIA had resigned a week earlier? Or what will come of his testimony this week (assuming that he still gives it)?

Obama spent weeks running on a "Save Big Bird" platform. What would have happened to this and the Million Muppet March if it had come out the the man who controls Elmo has been accused of having relationship with a 16-year-old boy?

Thursday, November 08, 2012

What happened and what to do about it

A week and a half ago things looked good for Romney. He was ahead in several polls including the consolidated ones like Real Clear Politics and was gaining. A week ago things started looking bad. Romney was dropping and Obama was gaining. Even then, Obama was below 50% in the swing states. If the undecideds followed the historic pattern and broke for the challenger then Romney would still win.

It didn't happen that way. The undecideds broke for Obama. It had been assumed that Democrats would be less enthusiastic than Republicans and turn out in fewer numbers. That didn't happen either. Obama managed to close the enthusiasm gap.

One big factor was Hurricane Sandy. Presidents almost always get a popularity boost immediately after a disaster. Obama's approval rating had been below 50% for some time but it climbed above 50% right after the hurricane hit, matching his percentage of the vote.

So that is why he won a close election. The bigger question is why the election was that close in the first place and what Republicans can do about it in the future.

The economy should have been a deciding factor. Obama mismanaged the recovery but there was a recovery. Voters tend to judge incumbents on how the economy is doing at the end of his term compared with the beginning. There is no question that the economy has improved. It should have been much better but voters don't seem to judge against that.

The Republicans' social agenda hurt them. Two different Senatorial candidates got caught making stupid statements about abortion and rape. Santorum, one of the last challengers for President is on the record as being against birth control. Heck, Santorum is so extreme that I would have voted for Obama over him.

It is hard to reconcile a platform of limited government with intrusive right-to-life positions. The Republicans need to learn the lesson that the Democrats learned on gun control. After Clinton waged a multi-year assault on guns, it was assumed that Gore would be even worse. There are a lot of gun owners who vote for gun rights first. Clinton's gun control probably cost Gore the election. Since then the candidates have been silent on gun control. Obama even disavowed his earlier position on outlawing guns.

Republicans need to take a similar approach. Extreme pro-life Republicans pull down the entire party. A huge majority of the country feels that abortion in the case of rape and incest should always be allowed so any candidate who suggests otherwise is wildly out of step. It gets worse when god gets dragged into it.

Gay marriage is another issue that the Republicans would be better off silent about. Again, it does not go with the limited government approach. Obama stirred up a lot of excitement by announcing that he no longer objected to gay marriage although he would not do anything to advance it. Republicans should take a hands-off approach to it.

Finally, they may need to throw Grover Norquist under the bus. I know all of the arguments against raising taxes. They are all intellectual. "Make the rich pay a little bit more" and "Make the rich pay their fair share" are emotional appeals. If Republicans are in control then taxes will not be raised. But, in order to take control, they may need to make some populist compromises. Reagan could run on a platform of tax cuts for all because a larger portion of the population was paying income tax then and, because of runaway inflation, the amount going for taxes kept increasing due to high inflation. Those factors are not present today so that platform will no longer work.

One thing that the Republicans have going for them - in the last 50 years, Obama was the only person elected president who had not been Vice President or a governor and that was a special case (Palin was the only governor on the ticket). The Republicans now have a record 30 governors. That gives them a deep pool of talent to draw from. The Democrats are short on superstars for 2016. If the Republicans can tame their social conservative side then they have a good shot at retaking the White House.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Psychohistory and the Polls

Isaac Asimov's famous Foundation Series was based on the idea of Psychohistory. This allowed mathematicians to predict human behavior using specialized mathematics. With this, the inventor, Hari Seldon, was able to predict and influence the founding of a new galactic empire. The basic principle of psychohistory is that people in large enough groups will react in predictable ways.

The theory is seductive and many pollsters began by reading this series.

One problem is identifying and quantifying all of the possible inputs. Right now there is no way to do this. The best we can do is to try to take a snapshot of opinions and make guesses about that. For example, Romney surged in the polls following each debate, even the second one in which the moderator took on the role of fact-checker. Does that mean that Romney won the debates or that winning and losing didn't matter, just looking presidential was enough? Did Obama close with Romney because of his campaign or because of his initial response to Hurricane Sandy? Did he fade at the last minute because of continuing stories about Sandy? The pollsters cannot tell us.

In the last few days multiple companies have done national polls and hundreds of companies have done state polls. As of election day the race is too close to call. All of the polls are within the margin of error. The race is going to be decided by things like voter turnout. In 2004 a record number of people voted. Democrats showed up in record numbers but were overwhelmed by record numbers of Republicans. In 2008, Democrats showed up in record numbers while Republicans stayed home or switched parties. In 2010, fewer people voted and of those who did, Republicans turned out in record numbers while the Democrats stayed home.

Pollsters try to estimate the likelihood of individuals showing up but it is difficult. Most people don't even want to talk to a pollster. So, they guess what the turnout will be and apply this to their actual sampling to get an idea of what the actual turnout will be. The result is that the polls are close to each other but none are identical. In the swing states, the percentage of undecided voters is high enough to tip the election for either candidate. These are states where neither candidate has 50% and is only ahead by two points or fewer.

Enter the poll aggregators. They reach a conclusion based on combining multiple polls. Real Clear Politics does this.

Then there is Nate Silver. He claims to be able to take unreliable data and coax reliability out of it by weighting the various polls according to secret formulas. He does not explain these except to say that he treats state polls as more accurate than national polls. He uses this to predict the winner. In this case, he says that President Obama has a 92% probability of winning.

So how does he control for such things as undecided voters and voter turnout? He doesn't. It doesn't help his case that he seems to give more weight to older, smaller, pro-Obama polls than to more recent pro-Romney polls.

The financial meltdown happened because of a reliance on models predicting human behavior. They showed that the default rate on sub-prime mortgages was low enough that they could be treated as a AAA investment. The problem was that they assumed a constant default rate. This was influenced by rising house values which allowed most people with financial problems to sell their house rather than default. When the housing market crashed, people could no longer sell their homes and started to default. The people who had written the financial models knew that this was possible but no one wanted to hear about it. There was too much money to be made by ignoring the risks.

Nate Silver's models have the same sort of flaw. They assume that the underlying polls are correct but, as I pointed out above, the race is within their margin of error. This is a much tougher election to predict than 2008 when Silver correctly called 49 out of 50 states.

At this point Obama will win or he will not. Further predictions will not change things. But I would hesitate before investing money in Silver's models.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Sandy's Aftermath

A week ago Hurricane Sandy hit the New York City area causing massive destruction. Many people immediately announced that Global Warming was responsible and called for immediate action. Is this justified? Not really.

Although it was described as a "superstorm" and a "Frankenstorm", Sandy was only a category one hurricane. It joined with two other storm systems and ended up having a record size. This happens. The "Perfect Storm" is another example. It does not prove anything about climate in general.

Experts have warned for years that New York City was totally unprepared for a direct hit by a hurricane. Nothing was done. This was just as true fifty years ago as now and made the destruction much worse. So far I have not heard anyone talking about hurricane preparedness, just Global Warming. Hurricanes have always happened and they need to be planned for. Just imagine what a stronger hurricane would have done. Or will do since this is inevitable.

Two things make this seem worse - one is that it hit such a populous region. The other is that it hit in the networks' back yard. They don't have to send remote units to view the destruction. They can do this by car (if they can get gas).

President Obama's approval rating on Rasmussen ticked up for a few days last week. He had been behind by four points but for a few days he was tied with Governor Romney. That was probably a response to Obama looking presidential in response to the storm. As reports of lasting power outages and Staten Island being forgotten filter out, Obama has dropped again.

Mayor Bloomburg probably did his own political career lasting damage. Instead of planning for storms and floods, he was worrying about transfats and baby formula. He turned down Nation Guard assistance on the grounds that only NYPD should be armed. His insistence on not cancelling the marathon and his last-minute cancellation made him a top story nation-wide. I doubt that his endorsement of Obama will help the President's reelection campaign.

Friday, November 02, 2012

The Election and the Future

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 marked the culmination of a push by the left wing of the Democratic Party to move the party to the left. Milestones in this push included the candidacy of Howard Dean, the rise of the "Netroots" on-line community, the closing of the moderate Democrat Leadership Council, the ejection from the party of office-holders such as Joe Lieberman, and the re-branding of the left as "progressive" instead of "liberal".

That last one is important. While they like to recall the Progressives from the early 20th century, the term went out of fashion after the 1948 election when it was used as a front for communists.

If Obama wins a second term then things will continue as they have for the last two years. His slogan is "Forward." (or more recently "Forward!") but his real goal is "Entrenchment!".

Obama believes that the fiscal cliff gives him the upper hand in negotiations with Congress. He is willing to let all of the various tax cuts expire and all of the budget cuts go into effect. He believes that this will make the Republicans so desperate to make a deal that they will have to accept any terms that he dictates. These will start with tax increases on the rich. He may add in other portions of his agenda that failed during his first term.

It is unclear if this tactic will succeed. The important thing is that he is willing to hold the economic health of the nation hostage (a term he used two years ago to describe the Republicans).

Regardless of his relations with the Republicans, Obama has shown that he is willing to ignore Congress and legislate through executive order. This may permanently damage the balance between the three branches of government.

Obama has promised the Russians that he will have more flexibility during his second term in negotiating arms reductions.

He is a follower of Paul Krugman who believes that the solution to a slow economy and a budget deficit is more spending and a higher deficit. This reasoning says that if the government pumps enough money into the economy then it will eventually pick up so much that the deficit can be eliminated. The fact that this has only been accomplished in conjunction with a war that destroyed Europe's industrial capacity escapes them.

Obama has a European view of the relationship between government and its people. In this view, rights come from the government and group rights can take priority over individual rights. Religion is harmful and should be limited to private observances. The economy must be carefully managed by the government and steps must be taken to equalize results. Rich people represents a failure of government.

The fact that most of Europe is in deep financial trouble is irrelevant and can be blamed on misguided attempts at austerity. This feeds back into the Krugman view that government can never spent too much.

If Obama is defeated then none of this will happen. What is more, it will be generations before the Democrats go so far to the left again. That is what happened after McGovern was trounced in 1972. For that matter, gun control has been off the table for Democrats since the 2000 election. The widespread thinking is that Gore lost because of gun control legislation passed under Clinton (with Gore providing the tie-breaking vote in the Senate). That cost him Tennessee which would have given him the election.

If Obama loses then the Democrats will back away from a radical agenda and moderate their position. If they win they will double-down on it.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Choice

This election comes down to a simple choice - competence versus ideology.

Governor Romney has been successful at everything he has done. This is through a combination of innate ability and his willingness to work hard to master whatever skills he needs to succeed. When he took over the Olympics he expected to have a public relations problem to manage. Instead he found a failing organization. He worked very long hours (80-100 hours a week) and ignored his personal life but the Olympics were a success. His career in business was based on taking failing enterprises and turning them around. During his term as governor Massachusetts saw major improvements in job creation and education.

All of the objections to Romney are on ideological grounds which brings me to President Obama. Obama was the least distinguished man to become president since the 19th century, possibly ever. Despite teaching constitutional law and editing a prestigious law review he never published a single legal opinion. While in the Illinois Senate he never sponsored any significant legislation. His entire (partial) term as a US Senator was spent running for president. He became president on the basis of a stirring keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and a pair of autobiographies. Once in office, Obama decided not to put in the hours or effort needed to be a great president. He retired to the residential wing in mid-afternoon and makes most of his decisions by putting check-marks beside bullet points on memos.

When Obama took office the country was reeling from a financial crisis. Unemployment was at its second highest since the Great Depression. But, rather than concentrate on jobs and the economy, his top priority was securing his legacy. He wanted to create something on par with Social Security or Medicare. When asked about ignoring the economy for his first two years, Obama told the Des Moines Register editors that he has no regrets. Despite being three years into a recovery the Federal Reserve still feels it necessary to push a stimulus - their third. Worse, the economy has slowed since last year.

Obama is running on a platform of raising taxes on the rich, providing free birth control for everyone, and saving Big Bird. This is an ideological agenda. We are unlikely to see a real recovery while Obama is in office.

Given his record of success in business and in a state dominated by Democrats Romney is objectively the best person to revive the economy and restore America.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Jeep Ad

The Obama campaign is crying foul over a new Romney ad. The ad starts with a shot of a couple of cars being crushed while a voice-over says that President Obama sent GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy and sold Chrysler to an Italian company. The ad then complains that the Jeep portion of Chrysler will be building Jeeps in China.

The complaint is not that anything in the ad is incorrect. Every word is factual. The complaint is that it gives the wrong impression. This is ironic.

"But Romney wanted to take GM and Chrysler through the same bankruptcy process that Obama used!" they cry. This is true but, after months of accusing Romney of wanting to break up GM and Chrysler, they don't have much room to complain. The Jeep ad may have omitted a fact but the ads that Obama has been running told outright falsehoods.

The part about producing Jeeps in China is a little more nuanced. These cars will be made in China to be sold in China. No American jobs will be lost. At the same time, no American jobs will be gained, either. Instead of making cars in the US for export, Jeep will be making them overseas.

The Obama campaign has no cause to complain here. What Jeep is doing is the exact thing that some of the companies Romney invested in have done - ramp up overseas production to service an overseas market. Team Obama has said that this amounts to shipping American jobs overseas so they cannot complain that it only counts when a Romney company does it.

The Jeep ad is not the most factual one aired this campaign but it is far from the worst. The Obama campaign cannot complain when Romney uses the same tactics that they have used.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Romney on FEMA

Liberals are pulling up a quote from Mitt Romney from a few months ago about FEMA, the federal agency that oversees emergency relief. The implication is that Romney wants the federal government to end emergency aid and leave emergencies to the individual states to manage out of their own resources.

Let's put this in context. If you Google FEMA mismanagement you get 200,000 hits. A few top examples:

  • FEMA mismanaged $40M IT system, IG says -- FCW
  • FEMA Mismanaged Katrina Recovery Effort, GAO Says
  • Emergency Mismanagement -
  • Commentary on FEMA Mismanagement | FreedomWorks
  • FEMA Presents: Mismanagement on Ice! | ThinkProgress
  • Homeland audit says Katrina contracts were mismanaged - The ...
  • FEMA Mismanaged $3.6 Billion in Katrina Contracts

When both ThinkProgress and FreedomWorks says that an organization has major mismanagement problems there must be something to it. Also, these links cover several years and multiple events.

Some of the criticism assumes that the problem was exclusive to the Bush administration and that a new administration could easily clean things up. That just isn't how huge government agencies work.

Romney's proposal was consistent with his platform in general - remove a layer of management at the top and let the people closer to the problem deal with emergencies. The more layers of management you have the worse the decision-making.

Here's one example of mismanagement. FEMA had 120,000 trailers constructed as emergency shelters after Katrina. These were found to have dangerous levels of formaldehyde vapors. Some of the surplus trailers made it onto the open market as late as 2010. There are also reports that they were being used as temporary shelter for workers cleaning up the Gulf oil spill in 2010.

Given their track record, why should anyone want to preserve FEMA? Mainly because the knee-jerk response from the left is that the solution to any problem is a federal agency. If that doesn't work then we need a bigger federal agency.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Attending a Romney Campaign Rally

Last night my wife noticed that Romney would be attending a rally less than an hour away in Marion, Ohio. She had been wanting to go to one of these and most have been during work hours so we went.

We think that Romney had been scheduled for an event in Virginia that was cancelled because of Hurricane Sandy. That meant that a Ryan event became a Romney/Ryan event. Marion was a bit overwhelmed.

The rally was held at the Marion Fairgrounds. The building was large enough (barely) but the streets and parking were not.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Traffic was stopped a mile from the fairgrounds and all of the cross-streets were also stopped. It took us a half-hour to go a half-block. At that point I took an alley and parked on a side-street.

Team Obama's ground game was off. We expected some sort of counter-protest but all we saw were two young women carrying a single Obama yard sign. They looked spontaneous.

Once we got into the fairgrounds we got into line for the metal detectors. After around fifteen minutes this was what was in front of us.

And here is what was behind us.

They had two metal detectors each at two doors For some reason, very few people were going through the side door so we got in a little earlier than some people.

The campaign staff was filling in sections. It was still an hour before things started so they were filling in behind the speaker's platform first. We were fairly close to the stage but behind and to the side. By the time things started, all of the sections plus most of the floorspace were full. I tried to do some estimates but there were too many people for me. All I can say for certain is that there were several thousand.

They handed out some long vinyl inflatable Romney things to the bleacher behind the speaker's platform. Some of them were blue, some were white. I'm not quite sure what the purpose was. Maybe they were Romney's answer to "lady parts". You can see some being waved here.

Right on schedule the event started with the Oak Ridge Boys. They sang several songs to pre-recorded tracks then left, promising to perform "Elvira" in their second set.

Then someone I don't know introduced the entire local ticket. Senate candidate, Josh Mandel and others got to speak.

The audience knew that something was up. The Secret Service seemed more animated. Someone finally came through distributing Romney signs to our section.

Sure enough, the Oak Ridge Boys did their second set. They started with "Elvira" then did "Amazing Grace".

While this was going on, Romney and company sneaked in. The Oak Ridge Boys left the stage and there were the candidates. Somehow the idea of the candidate coming in without a big fanfare seems typical for Romney and something that Obama would never have done.

Ryan's wife and Ron Portman were also on the stage.

Ryan introduced Romney, starting out with the quote from Obama in 2008 about what you do when you don't have a record to run on.

Romney started speaking at 7:20 and spoke for around a half hour. I was pleased with this. I saw George H. W. Bush in 1988 and he only spoke for five or ten minutes.

Romney's speech was divided into three parts. The first was a contrast between himself and Obama. The second was about his plans including his five point plan. The final part was about America itself. Romney began this part with a personal story about his days as a scoutmaster. His troop had a new flag and wanted to get it sent into space. They talked NASA into it and it was on the Challenger when it exploded. Amazingly, the flag survived intact and was presented to the scout troop. Romney used the experience of touching the flags and tying that to the Americans who have lost their lives for scientific exploration. From there he went into the military.

Romney did not hit Obama on any specific issues except the economy. This was material he has used before - the unemployment rate, the under employment rate, the rise in prices and the corresponding loss in family income. With a small but growing lead and only nine days to the election, this was not the time to be trying new attacks. This was a front-runner's campaign.

All told, the rally lasted around an hour and a half.

At dinner, the manager of a local restaurant told us that a lost of out-of-town people had been through. He assumed that most were there for the rally. He said that several were from Michigan.

While the crowd was fired-up, I had the feeling that the biggest draw was being able to see the next president of the United States in person.

Here is a picture of Romney on his way out. The top of his head is cut off but it gives an idea of how close we were.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Obama's Mistakes

President Obama has made many mistakes that have hobbled his reelection chances and may cost him reelection. The worst of these go all the way back to the first days of his administration. Here are a few of them.

Ignoring the economy. When deciding his agenda, Obama someone pointed out that staving off a second Great Depression would be a good legacy. Obama replied that it wasn't big enough and went for health care reform instead. He recently told an the Des Moines Register editorial board that he does not regret this decision. He should.

Ignoring the Republicans. During his the two years, the Obama Administration attitude toward the Republicans was "We've got the votes. F--- them." The Obama people never figured out how to work with the Republicans. He stopped even trying in mid-2011. Even the widely disseminated quote about the number one priority being to ensure that Obama is a one-term president was said in the context of Obama refusing to work with the Republicans.

Class Warfare. The 99%. Making the rich pay a "little bit more" or "their fair share". We've been hearing this stuff for four years and I'm sick of it. I imagine that a lot of other people are, too. Obama has repeatedly shown that he would rather throw the country over a fiscal cliff than let the rich keep their current tax rates.

Trickle Down Economics. For all of Obama's rhetoric about the rich, his economic stimulus mainly consists of giving subsidized loans to Wall Street in the hope that it will spark a wider recovery. This is why the stock market and corporate profits are up but the general economy is still sputtering.

The campaign team. Obama's campaign team is not as good as they are often credited for being. Yes, they got him elected in 2008 but they had a strong tail-wind. Hillary Clinton (primaries) and McCain (general election) were not strong candidates. Clinton burned through all of her campaign money by Super Tuesday. That gave Obama two months of uncontested primaries to give a sense of inevitability. Even then, he did not capture an outright majority of the delegates. In the general election, Obama bypassed federal matching funds which let him spend twice as much as McCain. He used the extra money to run more negative ads than ever before. Add in the economic crash and Bush fatigue and all Obama needed was a competent campaign staff, not a great one.

The Big Question. Since 1980, the big question has been "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" Romney didn't ask this, the media did and for a week the Obama campaign couldn't give a straight answer. They must have know this was coming? It doesn't help that the economy may be doing better but a lot of individual voters are worse off.

These were general problems that would hurt him against any candidate. Here are the problems that hurt him against Romney.

Hitting Romney too hard and too early. Team Obama wanted to define Romney before he could define himself. They should have learned from 1988 when Dukaksis defined himself on the basis of the Massachusetts Miracle. That made attacks on Dukaksis more devistating. Instead, the attacks came so early that they lost effectiveness. People stopped caring about Bane last Summer.

Hitting Romney as being too conservative. Romney is a moderate and we all know it. If he had been the red meat conservative that Obama tried to paint him then he would have wrapped up the nomination much earlier. Team Obama would probably have done better with their original plan of calling Romney a flip/flopper.

Relying on a "Hit Mitt" strategy. For months the Obama campaign didn't have a single positive ad. All they had were anti-Romney ads. As Romney pointed out in the last debate, attacking him is not an agenda. The Obama people felt that the key to winning the election was to base it on likeability. The debates turned this around because Romney may come across as a throwback to the father in a 1960s sit-com but those were likeable figures.

Having no agenda. This is the flip side of the Hit Mitt strategy. Obama did not want to be tied down by campaign promises so he never said what he plans for a second term. Hope and Change is no longer enough and Forward is not inspiring. Without concrete promises, Obama has nothing to run on except "more of the same". To be fair, items that Obama will probably push like same-sex marriage and immigration reform are controversial and may not being him any net votes.

Lack of honesty. People are beginning to check some of Obama's assertions. Letterman looked up Romney's 2008 editorial on Detroit bailouts and found that he did not want GM to go out of business. Libya looks worse every day. Once the public stops trusting you, you never get its trust back.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Foreign Policy Debate

Here is a truth that neither candidate will ever tell you: President Obama's foreign policy is not very different from President Bush's and the foreign policy of President Romney would not be much different from either.

That's why last night's debate seemed so light weight. Romney only identified a few places that he would be different: Syria, Iran and Israel. In addition, he would not cut military spending.

But most people are not going to vote on a candidate because of his commitment to a foreign nation. Voters just want to be sure that the president knows what he is talking about. Romney spent a lot of time dropping names to show that he has become a foreign policy expert. That was his goal for the debate, to make himself seem credible, and he carried it off.

Obama's goal was to "win" the debate so he tossed off a few well-rehearsed zingers - "The 90s called. They want their foreign policy back." and the line about horses and bayonets. Neither line helped Obama. They seemed rude and juvenile, especially the part about "We have these things called air craft carriers and planes land on them." This was also an example of ducking the issue.

The election is mainly about the economy and domestic policy which is why the debate kept veering back to domestic policy.

While Obama may have scored more points, Romney probably won the real contest  - who comes across as being more presidential?

Another major change since the first debate is that the position of the two candidates has changed. At the first debate, Obama was the likely winner and Romney the challenger whose campaign was collapsing around him. A month later Romney is ahead and Obama is the challenger, trying to pull down Romney's lead. All that Romney had to do was keep from making a mistake that would cost him momentum. He succeeded since the Obama did not find any "Big Bird" moments.

Obama's new goal - an asterisk

After George W. Bush won the Electoral Collage but lost the popular vote, the comic strip Doonsbury decided that his avatar would be an asterisk.

As Barack Obama comes out behind in national poll after poll, his campaign has turned its focus to the swing states. In other words, he has given up hope of winning the popular vote but still hopes to win the Electoral Collage, just as Bush did.

The difference is that Bush retained a Republican Congress. His weak showing in the popular vote did not give him much of a mandate but his party controlled two branches of government and had an often sympathetic Supreme Court. Even if Obama wins, the Democrats are likely to have a tiny majority in the Senate while the Republicans control the House and the Supreme Court continues to swing slightly conservative.

In 2001, Democrats were urging Bush to adopt Gore's positions and talking about the need to reform the Constitution and end the Electoral College. I doubt that they expect Obama to adopt any of Romney's positions. I wonder what they will say about reforming the Constitution?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Gaffe or Distraction?

First a little background on Libya.

President Obama can be forgiven for not saying the words "terrorist attack" during his speech the morning of September 12. Libya was the bigger tragedy but the embassy in Egypt had also been attacked as part of a protest over the anti-Mohamed film trailer (although the demonstration may have been incited by al Qaeda). The State Department and the CIA may have known that there was no demonstration in Libya but the information had not had a chance to trickle up to Presidential levels.

Possibly Obama may have gotten intelligence if he had stayed around for his security briefing instead of running off to Las Vegas for a fund raiser. Regardless, he used the phrase "acts of terror" for the first couple of days after the assassinations.

But by the weekend that phrase had vanished from official statements. Instead the White House began to insist that the attacks were a direct response to the video and had nothing to do with the US. We were just innocent bystanders, unlucky enough to host the person who caused all of the trouble.

Two weeks after the attack the President was still referring to the video while addressing the UN.

But that story had started unraveling. By the time the White House began its "nothing to do with us" line the Libyan government was saying that it was a terrorist attack. The President must have known that there was no demonstration by the time he gave his UN speech.

So why continue to disseminate an incorrect story? And for that matter, who decided that a directive should go out to all embassy staff that September 11 was to be treated as an ordinary day? Was this based on security analysis or was it a political decision to reenforce the concept that the threat from al Qaeda died with bin Laudin?

Which brings me to the debate. Governor Romney started to bring all of this up but was interrupted by Obama. This turned into a quibbling session about when the word "terror" was first used and totally sidetracked Romney's point.

The strange thing is that Obama asked for the transcript to be checked and moderator Candy Crowley proceeded to check it.

Think about that. Since when does a moderator being transcripts of speeches to a debate? And how did Obama know that she had it?

This turned Obama's biggest vulnerability into a triumph. The next day the Huffington Post had the headline, "Romney caught in lie about Libya". The story did contain a note at the end in which quoted Crowley as admitting that Romney's larger point was correct, that the Obama administration continued to blame the video days after that story had been discredited.

There can be no doubt that Crowley favored Obama. She picked the questions and the order that they were asked. Many of them sounded as if they were written by the Obama campaign. She interrupted Romney at least three times as often as she interrupted Obama (an average of once every three minutes) and she gave Obama more time.

But on Libya, she and Obama seemed to be working in concert, playing gotcha over the work "terror" in order to distract from substantive questions.

It is hard not to ask if this strategy was preplanned?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Why the Obama Campaign is Foundering

Polls have been close for months but up until the last couple of weeks, nearly every poll showed President Obama with a slight lead. In the last two weeks this has reverse and Romney now has the slight lead overall and is gaining strength in most swing states. He is even gaining in states that seemed to be a lock for Obama a month ago. What happened? There is more at work here than one debate performance.

Obama has three basic problems. His campaign made some bad choices in its handling of Mitt Romney, the economy is still doing poorly, and Obama has expressed no vision for his second term.

In 2008, the electorate was tired of George W. Bush. A lot of the initial enthusiasm for Obama was that he was the anti-Bush. He made a lot of promises, twice as many as most presidential candidates by Politifact's count, but few people paid attention. What they understood was that "Hope and Change" were code words for "not Bush". When the economy crashed just before the election it strengthened Obama's campaign. Bush had crashed the economy and the anti-Bush would save it. Obama even got a Nobel Peace Prize for being the anti-Bush. Obama is still trying to run on this by equating Romney and Bush and warning against a return to the policies that caused the crash in the first place (which were not what he says they were).

But Bush is long-gone. Obama is trying hard to run as the anti-Romney but Bush was a known quantity and Romney is not.

The Obama campaign decided that their best chance was to define Romney before he could define himself. Both Obama (Hope and Change) and Clinton (the Man from Hope) came up with an unbeatable narrative during their initial campaigns. Romney had the makings of one as a successful businessman so the Obama campaign decided to poison that image. They were sure that once they took away Romney's business career and his term as governor that he would be left with likability and "no one likes Mitt Romney".

So they struck early and hard. They carpet bombed Ohio and other swing states during the primaries. And it worked for a long time. But there is a reason that most campaigns wait until Labor Day before going into high gear. You can't keep repeating the same attacks forever. They lose their sting through repetition. The Obama has nothing substantive to attack Romney on so it is reduced to using Big Bird and Binder Full of Women.

They also made a mistake on content. Originally they planned on attacking Romney as a man with no moral core. Attacking a candidate for being a flip flopper often works and Romney has changed positions on major topics over his career. But, possibly at Bill Clinton's urging, they changed and attacked Romney as being too conservative. Obama warned that Romney was the most conservative candidate on the ballot since Goldwater. This was a strange claim since few people even remember who Goldwater was (he ran before Obama was born). Eventually they settled on the claim that Romney wants to raise people's taxes in order to give tax breaks to the rich and send jobs overseas.

The months of negative advertising probably backfired. Most people had never seen more than a ten second soundbite of Romney prior to the debates. The real Romney is fairly moderate (which is why primary voters kept flirting with more conservative candidates during the primaries). He sounds reasonable. People who planned on sitting out the election gave Romney a second look and decided that he isn't so bad anyway. Romney didn't need to win the debated to attract these voters. He only had to look like a creditable alternative to Obama.

Obama likes to brag about the number of jobs created during his administration. In the last couple of weeks he had put out ads bragging about how well "his" recovery is going. The problem here is that you cannot manufacture a "morning in America" with feel-good ads. Obama had to cherry-pick his numbers. He quoted private-sector job growth while ignoring public-sector job loss and he only started counting from the lowest point. If you start counting from his inauguration then we are barely even. If you start at the height of employment under Bush then the economy is in terrible shape. People knew this even before Romney pointed out that job growth under Reagan was twice what it is now and that the economy is slowing down instead of speeding up.

You have to ask yourself, if the economy is doing so well then why is the Fed doing a third round of stimulus?

Romney is often criticized for being vague about his plans but he has at least announced them. Obama's reelection theme is "Forward" but he does not tell us where he is going. We know that he had an opertunity to pass a whole slate of legislation when his party controlled both houses of Congress and he squandered it by limiting his focus to Obamacare. He has suggested that his reelection would somehow shock the Republicans into working with him but if this fails, what does he hope to accomplish?

Obama has been asked this question multiple times. The best that he can come up with is that he wants to maintain a holding action to keep his accomplishments from being rolled back. This isn't much of a vision but "Forward" makes a better slogan than "Stand Still".

Obama's other reason for running - that he really, really hates Romney and will do anything to keep him out of the White House - it even less inspiring to voters.

So far, after months of campaigning, all we know for sure is that Obama wants to raise taxes on the rich and increase government spending. He isn't even willing to cut the amount we are spending on wars (which, as he points out are paid for with borrowed money). Instead he wants to redirect that money to other spending.

This is not a coherent case for reelection.

A lot of voters still have fond feelings for Obama and the Democrats are solidly behind him regardless of how poor a job he does but that leaves enough swing voters to turn the election against him.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Debate Number Two

A few impressions from the second presidential debate:

Obama did much better. He actually took this one seriously. This was to be expected. Obama is very competitive and hates to lose. Even if he no longer really desires being president he does not want to lose two debates in a row to someone he despises.

Obama's main lessons from Biden's performance last week were 1) interrupt often and 2) a Democrat can get away with telling bald face lies as long as he does it confidently.

The format was designed to be as favorable as possible to Obama. The questions sounded as if they were written by the Obama campaign. The moderator allowed Obama more time, interrupted Romney more than once, and only asked for follow-up from Romney.

When asked about Libya, Obama ran as fast and as far from the question as he could. When Romney tried to point out that the Obama administration spent most of two weeks blaming the killings on a video instead of admitting that they were a terrorist attack, the moderator overstepped all bounds of moderation by quibbling over the term "terrorism". Later in the exchange she admitted that Romney was essentially correct.

The audience which was supposed to be silent and uncommitted broke out in applause after Obama asked the moderator to "say that again louder" that he had used the word "terror" on September 12.

Obama projected righteous anger at the suggestion that he and his staff played politics over the Libyan slayings. Romney did not pursue this but how else to explain two weeks of misinformation? An old debater's trick is to act offended if your opponent scores a hit.

The only real body blow landed by either candidate was when Romney responded to Obama's list of accomplishments. Romney listed Obama's failures when compared to Obama's own promises and to the Reagan recovery. He rightly pointed out that under Reagan the economy created twice as many jobs in the same period and that Obama's vaunted five million jobs created barely made up for the five million jobs lost.

So where does that leave us. I doubt that either candidate convinced many voters to change their mind. Obama probably stopped the bleeding induced from his first debate but he needed a clear win to reverse the damage and he did not get it.

The debate may help Romney regardless of his performance. For the past several weeks, Romney has done best when he is actually seen by the electorate but a sitting president has more opportunities for exposure than a challenger. It was assumed that Obama got a lasting bounce from his convention because he remained high in the polls until the first debate. But, right around the time that the embassy attacks happened. Tragedies give presidents a chance to gain stature and Obama's Rose Garden statement probably gave him a second bounce just as the one from the convention was dying down. Accordingly, sharing the same stage as Obama helps Romney. It doesn't hurt that he seemed marginally more mature.

Obama partisans have already labeled the debate a win for the President but that is based on a combination of wishful thinking and Obama not stumbling.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Things I would like to hear Mitt say during the next debate

Obama has promised that he will bring up the 47%. This gives Romney a chance to bury that quote. I would love to hear him say something like this:

During a campaign we have hundreds of meetings and inevitably say some things that are wrong. In 2008 President Obama called the voters of Pennsylvania bitter and said that they cling to guns, religion, and racist. Earlier this year he told people who create business "You didn't build this."

In my case I was trying to make a point about our current tax system. It is already so progressive that nearly half of the country pays no income tax and the top 10% pays 60% of the taxes. President Obama wants to make this even more progressive and I was trying to point out how easy it is for him to buy votes by promising to pay for his proposals by raising other people's taxes.

It is easy to say that someone else has too much money and that the government should take some of it but this overlooks how that money is used. The tax increases that the President proposes would hurt small businesses and take away jobs, not create them.

On Libya:

Harry Truman had a sign on his desk that said "The buck stops here". If President Obama had a sign it would say, "Send the buck to the Secretary of State".

In the days after the attack on the Libyan consulate and the assassination of the ambassador and three other Americans the administration made several inaccurate statements. Last week the Vice President excused these because they had not been informed about what actually happened. I guess they were shooting first and asking questions later.

This indicates a detached White House that prefers to delegate vital functions such as the safety of embassy personnel.

Monday, October 15, 2012

What Didn't the President Know and Why Didn't He Know It?

The consulate in Libya was attacked by terrorists. The ambassador and three other Americans were killed. The attack was made by a local affiliate of Al Qaeda and was monitored in real-time by the State Department.

The attack came after several pleas for more security at the consulate and after the Ambassador had expressed fears that he was being targeted personally. Benghaze had been getting more dangerous in general. The Red Cross pulled out of the city. The State Department admits that Al Qaeda has growing influence in Libya and there are larger areas that are friendly to them than to the US.

And the attack came on September 11. The first September 11th since the death of Osama bin Lauden.

So, why didn't the government issue warnings to the State Department staff? Why was the Ambassador traveling without sufficient guards? Why did the White House and the Ambassador to the UN insist for days that the attacks were nothing more than an out-of-control demonstration over a YouTube video?

The current excuse is "We didn't know any better. No one told us."

This is also the excuse given for Operation Fast and Furious. That involved allowing guns to be sold to people who would "walk" them across the border and sell them to drug gangs. Guns sold through this program have been used in the death of hundreds of Mexicans and at least one American. When asked about this, President Obama claimed that the program had been started during the Bush administration and ended as soon as Attorney General Holder was made aware of it. This combines an outright lie (the program started nine months after Obama's inauguration) and a prevarication (Supposedly no one though that the deaths of hundreds of Mexicans was important enough to inform Holder of the program. He wasn't informed until after Congress began asking for details.)

President Truman was know for the plaque on his desk that read, "The buck stops here". This meant that he took responsibility for everything that happened under his administration. The same is true in the military. An officer is responsible for the actions of his men.

Granted, there is too much information for anyone at the top to know everything. Part of being in command is prioritizing the flow of information. What is important and what is not?

How is this handled in the Obama White House? While we don't know specifics, we do know that Obama dislikes briefings. He prefers to be handed a stack of memos. On policy decisions he is given options and he places check marks or minuses beside his choices. On rare occasions he will pencil in a one or two line question.

There is no direct feedback, no way for subordinates to know what issues the President is interested in and no subtlety. Just checks and minuses.

Since the President reads these papers by himself at night there is no way of knowing if he even reads security briefings.

The whole system is designed to discourage the flow of information to the President. It is quite possible that the White House is being truthful when they say that they did not have any information about the attacks. But that raises the question, "Why didn't they know?"

We can get some indication of the President's priorities by his actions on September 11 and 12. He was informed that the consulate was under attack and the Ambassador missing at 10 pm. He then disappeared into the residential portion of the White House and went to bed. The following day he cancelled a security briefing to announce that the ambassador was dead then he flew to a fund raiser at Las Vegas (remember when he threatened banks that had accepted TARP funds to avoid Las Vegas?).

The President did not want to know. How far down does this attitude extend? Are the people who can make decisions like authorizing more guards getting the requests?

During the Bush administration, Democrats complained that he was exaggerating the threat of al Qaeda attacks on the anniversary of September 11. Did this attitude cause the State Department to downplay real threats?

The Obama campaign is insisting that we should not care about these issues and that anyone who asks these questions is just playing politics. This is a shameful response. The death of Americans overseas is always an issue. The death of an ambassador elevates it.

Obama is asking for four more years so it is only right that we be allowed to ask if the security of America is being adequately addressed. This is not a question of politics, it is a question of competence and it needs to be answered.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The VP Debate

Going into the debate, Biden seemed like the underdog. He has a long history of saying strange things. Surprisingly, he did great. He was everything that Obama was not. He was animated and belligerent. As the debate continued he allowed Ryan less and less time to talk. He stole a page from Sarah Palin's book. When asked a tough question like Libya, he went off on a different subject, refusing to answer the actual question.

Biden also lied with ease. At one point he managed to tell two lies in one statement - he asserted that the economic crash was caused by Bush's Medicare Drug Benefit and two unfunded wars and that he voted against them. These had nothing to do with the crash and he voted for both wars and was a supporter of the drug benefit up to the final vote.

This is not to say that Biden's performance was perfect. He forgot to practice his expression. At times he looked angry like he was about to attack Ryan, possibly biting him. Other times he smiled or even laughed at inappropriate times. He was probably reacting to Ryan making statements that Biden had rehearsed answers to but it came across as strange. This may be the main thing that people remember from the debate.

Ryan did a decent job when he was able to speak without being interrupted. He didn't make any mistakes and he pushed the party line.

The moderating was terrible. At different points the moderator started arguing with the candidates. She also never made an attempt to stop Biden's constant interruptions.

If these guys were at the top of the ticket I would be worried. Instead, Obama is at the top and it just isn't in him to act this way. He likes to speak in a professorial voice. He is not a street brawler.

One thing that will help Romney in the long run: Biden telegraphed the attacks that Obama will use. This gives Romney time to rehearse defenses against them.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Debate #1

In the first debate Mitt Romney did everything that he had to do. His most important accomplishment was in coming across as both likeable and presidential. He opened with a joke about President Obama's anniversary which got a smile from Obama. When the moderator tried to cut him off, he replied "Fun isn't it?" and kept going. For most of the country (including me), this was the most exposure they have had to Romney. Romney was a completely different person from the one portrayed in Obama's attack ads and the contrast will help him.

Romney also got to challenge some of the claims that have been the heart of the Obama campaign, especially the one that he plans on raising taxes on the middle class. Obama kept saying it and Romney kept correcting him.

Obama seemed unprepared and peevish. When Obama spoke Romney watched politely with a half-smile on his face. When Romney spoke, Obama looked down or simply glared out at the audience. This was probably the first time in years that someone has called Obama a liar to his face (even if he was telling a lie). The President did not care for the experience.

The contrast between the two men was notable. It goes beyond Romney being better prepared. He has a clearer understanding of the issues. Without that, Obama was forced to repeat talking points.

Many people have questioned why Obama didn't bring up Bain or the 47%. This was probably a good move on Obama's part. Romney will have well-rehearsed answers to both, especially Bain. Obama has been misrepresenting what Bain does for months. The last thing he needs to do is to give Romney an excuse to refute another lie.

Obama probably did himself no favors by using John Kerry as his stand-in for Romney during practice. The thinking was that one stiff politician from Massachusetts is just like another but Romney is much more animated and forceful than Kerry. Romney not only dominated the debate, at times he seemed to be moderating it, also.

It will be days before we know how much the debate helped Romney. In the short-term, it inspired my wife to make a small donation to Romney and a liberal that we know decided that his previous donations to Obama were wasted money. In general, Republicans are energized and Democrats are demoralized.

There are still two debates to go. Obama could rally but the odds are against him. Regardless of how well prepared he is, he has to run on his record and he has few successes to justify reelection.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The Debate and Romney's Chances

Mitt Romney is behind in the polls, especially in important swing states but he is not so far behind that the race is a forgone conclusion. Both sides are running ads but these are unlikely to have much effect. The swing states have been buried with ads since last Spring. It is hard to believe that anyone who is still undecided will be moved by further advertizing.

That leaves the debates as Romney's best chance. There are three reasons why they will help him:

1) President Obama support is soft. Even the most positive polls have his support in the 50%-51% range. This does not leave him any margin for error. Undecideds often break for the challenger. If Romney can erode Obama's support by a couple percent and look good to the undecideds he can win.

2) This gives Romney national exposure. Romney's support has been highest when he gets coverage outside of campaign ads. Since the convention he has struggled to get any news coverage and when he does, it is often turned into a negative by hostile press. By contrast, Obama gained support after the killings in Libya because he was able to stand in front of the camera and look "presidential" (it also helped that he was able to disseminate a false story for a week about the basis for the attacks). The debates are Romney's last chance to reach the general public without going through the media filter. He doesn't have to "win" the debates. Simply standing on stage with Obama will give Romney stature. It also will help Romney that Obama is at his worst when speaking without a prepared speech on a teleprompter. Romney does not need a zinger to win. He just needs to look like a viable choice to be president.

3) Obama cannot avoid his record in the debates. He will try to frame it in the best possible light but Romney has multiple openings - yes, 4 million jobs were created but the workforce today is smaller than when Obama took office. Yes, there is a recovery but it is so weak that the Fed promised to keep pushing stimulus money for as long as it takes (QE3).

Both Reagan and Clinton saw gains from the debates. The same forces are at work here and will give Romney his make or break moment(s).